Twitter (TWTR) is finally admitting it's got more work to do in rethinking censorship, security and overall user experience, but the company is far from having a game plan to fix its problems.
The issues of censorship, fake news and hate speech are not limited to Twitter. The San Francisco-based company's real dilemma is that it's tackling all these issues like a technology company.
As a powerful media platform, its co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey has been reluctant to embrace the full breadth of responsibility that comes along with disseminating information and separating facts from fiction, i.e. being a reputable content distribution platform.
"When we started the company 12 years ago, we weren't necessarily thinking about some of the repercussions of our actions," Twitter's CEO Jack Dorsey told CNN's Reliable Sources on Friday. "(Now) we're ready to question everything."
Still, the solutions the company is coming up with are tech-based or abstract, idealistic notions. Earlier this year, the company said it will look at "incentives" in using the platform and try to measure "health" of each conversation.
"We're committing Twitter to help increase the collective health, openness, and civility of public conversation, and to hold ourselves publicly accountable towards progress," Jack Dorsey said back in March on Twitter. How exactly Twitter plans to monitor conversations and measure their health is unclear.
When asked what is broken about Twitter on Friday, Dorsey said it depended on who you ask.
"It really depends on who you follow and your perception of what you see and how you feel about that," Dorsey said. "I think it's important to see the dark areas of society so we can address them."
That's not what is broken about Twitter. What's broken is that people can't trust what they see.
On Tuesday, a viral, fake campaign pretending to be a Twitter initiative aptly named #dontbelieveeverytweet gained traction on social media, showcasing this very point. The campaign's website, mimicking Twitter's logo and design, shows a fake letter from Jack Dorsey, reminding "to be skeptical of everything you see on Twitter because our users can put literally anything in a tweet."
Trust and verification of information are Twitter's biggest problems, not its echo chambers or political brawls.
Declining User Growth
After years of aggressive growth, the fake news and security debate is hitting many tech companies hard and Twitter is no different. Last quarter, after a major crackdown on fake accounts, Twitter reported a decline in users. Twitter reached 335 million average monthly users, 79% of which are outside the U.S., in the second quarter -- a slight decline from the previous quarter.
Still, none of the solutions or issues Twitter addressed so far tackle the heart of its problem: verification of data and information. The social media giant appears to treat a fake news report or a conspiracy theorist like Alex Jones as an "opinion", giving it the same weight as a fact-checked article from BBC or ABC News.
Twitter was unique in not siding with other tech giants and allowing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones stay on the platform, only banning him for a week in response to public criticism. Alex Jones is a prolific fear-monger who at one point said the government was manipulating the weather to kill people, more recently offered "audio proof Trump did not say the N-word" and attacked social media companies like Facebook on censorship, asking "will the Silicon Valley oligarchs be benevolent dictators?"
In recognizing their left-leaning bias and public response, Twitter is effectively giving in to the conservative critics, including the most powerful Twitter user, the U.S. president.
"Social Media is totally discriminating against Republican/Conservative voices," U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted on Saturday. "Speaking loudly and clearly for the Trump Administration, we won't let that happen. They are closing down the opinions of many people on the RIGHT, while at the same time doing nothing to others."
New European Regulations
Unlike their European counterparts, the U.S. regulators are moving much slower to introduce fines or regulations on issues of censorship or hate speech, leaving it up to the tech companies themselves to sort out.
James Kelleher, an analyst at Argus Research said in an interview with Real Money, said the cleanup process will likely cost Twitter in the short-term, but will likely be a long-term positive for the company.
"It's not the result of a misstep by the company, it is something they did for the long-term health of social media," Kelleher said. "It will be a tough situation for a while.
The European regulators are more reluctant to let tech companies like Twitter off the hook.
Twitter's current rules remain broad, stating that the company does not tolerate "references to mass murder, violent events, or specific means of violence in which/with which such groups have been the primary targets or victims."
The company policy also doesn't tolerate "repeated and/or non-consensual slurs, epithets, racist and sexist tropes, or other content that degrades someone."
Earlier this year, Europe introduced GDPR data protection regulation that is also ahead of its U.S. counterparts.
Twitter is such a powerful tool for media, business and public sectors, that there is an ecosystem of smaller businesses Dataminr and Geofeedia that are helping their clients to sift through Twitter's vast data and users' posts. While they help to sort through and distribute information to their end users, there isn't a definitive source that helps verify information.
If Twitter and its affiliates don't hold themselves fully accountable for verifying information as the pool of data gets bigger and bigger, who will?
The good news is that the combined forces of Russian troll factories, hacking investigations, the hearings in Washington, public outcry and criticism of high-profile cases like Alex Jones are making Twitter take note.
They're beginning to ask the right questions, evaluate incentives of the product they created and their long-term strategy and user growth.
"The most important thing that we can do is we look at the incentives that we're building into our product," Dorsey said in a Washington Post interview. "Because they do express a point of view of what we want people to do - and I don't think they are correct anymore."
- Martin Cassidy contributed reporting to this piece.